Missoula County Jail

The Missoula County jail is full.

With 16 inmates sleeping on the floor earlier this year, the sheriff was forced to ship several inmates to the Ravalli County jail.

Lately, Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley receives emails – lots of them – from jail staff, telling her they are bursting at the seams with inmates.

"I am not here for a get-out-of-jail-free card," Rowley said during a public forum on jail diversion Tuesday night. "There are certainly people who belong in jail. That's not what this effort is about. This effort is about people who don't need to be in jail, or people who have underlying issues with alcohol and mental health."

Along with Rowley, the meeting was hosted by Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, state Sen. Cynthia Wolken and City Councilwoman Emily Bentley, who presented their ideas for what they call "The Master Plan."

The four elected officials also sought public comment about the plan, in an attempt to gauge the public's perception of the growing population at Missoula's jail.  

"We are hitting a critical point, where very soon if we don't do something about this and it's not successful, we are going to have to build a bigger jail," Rowley said. "We are all really committed to not doing that."  

She noted that building a bigger jail would be a multi-million dollar project, while housing inmates is an expensive task as well. 

Incarceration costs the county $108 a day per inmate, and is by far the most expensive sentencing option; monitoring someone outside the jail is a fraction of the cost, Rowley said. 

Seventy-five percent of the inmates in Missoula's jail have not yet been sentenced. The average stay for a non-violent offender is 13.8 days, data presented at the forum showed. 

The stay increases for Native Americans, and current bond amounts disproportionately affect poor and Native inmates.

Suicide rates quadruple in the jail population.

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McDermott listed eight options under consideration by the master plan's authors. Their intent: to keep non-violent offenders out of jail. The price tag for each option is less expensive than building another jail. 

The options include: 

  • Re-entry programs, including drug and alcohol addiction programs and mental health programs.
  • Add service providers to the jail, like a social worker.
  • Build a detox center, with two or four beds, in the community.
  • Build a drop-in center, like wet housing - a safe place to put people who are intoxicated.
  • Build a facility that would have six to eight emergency detention beds.
  • Revise bond conditions.
  • Implement more ways to monitor people electronically.
  • Eliminate jail time for those not appearing on municipal offenses, like urinating in public.

Those in attendance Tuesday were primarily people who work in the justice system, including elected officials, mental health workers and Poverello Center employees.

They responded to the proposal with questions that varied from judges' authority to the contract the county has with the Department of Corrections to rent out over 100 beds at the jail for state inmates.   

Bob Jaffe, a former Missoula city councilman, said when he Googled "jail diversion," the national discussion "is all about addressing mental health services."

"The discussion here has been economic issues and administrative decisions on how we do things. Am I characterizing that correctly?" he asked.

Bentley said there are many organizations in the community working on the mental health component, and that mental health, in general, tends to garner more support because people often have more compassion toward the mentally ill than for, say, drug addicts.

"You hear about over-incarceration a lot and mental health is a huge part of that, but I don't think that's the whole part," she said.

Rowley and Wolken echoed the councilwoman, saying Missoula County wants to have a broader conversation about jail overcrowding and addressing some of the other underlying issues, including substance abuse. 

"It's not that it's not an important piece, it's a piece that is being covered in our community by people who have already made a lot of headway," Wolken said.

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